Fundamental to the doctrine of faith in John Calvin (1509-64) is his
belief that Christ died indiscriminately for all men . . . Had not Christ died for all,
we could have no assurance that our sins have been expiated in God’s sight. . . .’1

The evidence that Calvin was a limited redemptionist is far more extensive
than the few quotations offered by writers like Murray and Helm . . . would indicate.
There is . . . a wealth of explicit and unambiguous statements in Calvin to the effect
that Christ died only for the elect. . . .2

‘Well, what was Calvin’s view?’ This is a question. I have frequently been asked when people learn that I studied Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. They are asking, of course, whether Calvin subscribed to a doctrine of limited atonement, the view that Christ died only to save the elect, or unlimited atonement, the view that he died to save everyone. As the quotations above demonstrate, scholars have strong and contrary opinions on this matter.

I will address Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement at the beginning of my conclusion for two reasons. First, because there continues to be great interest in the subject. Of the twenty two Calvin sources that I added to the bibliography for this edition, half deal with this issue. Second, I will discuss Calvin on the extent of the atonement, an issue he does not address in the Institutes, because after having dealt with this issue, we will be able to focus on the many things he does address in the Institutes concerning the work of Christ.

There are three positions on Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement. Many insist that Calvin teaches unlimited atonement.3 Others are equally insistent that Calvin holds to a limited atonement.4 A few maintain that we cannot know for certain.5 Roger Nicole, who favors limited atonement in Calvin, cites Curt Daniel, who takes the opposite view, when Nicole admits a tendency of scholars to read their views into Calvin:

Daniel makes a comment to the effect that most of the contenders in this area tend to ascribe to Calvin the view which they hold themselves, that is to say, they appear to have yielded to the temptation to annex Calvin in support of their own position! Unfortunately this remark seems to apply also to Daniel’s treatment and to the present article.6 .

Nicole’s frankness is refreshing. Most do read their view of the extent of the atonement into Calvin.

It would be a mistake, however, for readers to conclude that people reach their conclusions on Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement merely because they want to claim him for their own theology. In reality, matters are more complicated than that. There is evidence in Calvin that both ‘sides’ can claim as their own, evidence of two kinds. First, there are statements concerning the extent of the atonement itself. Calvin’s commentaries contain some passages that favor limited atonement, but the data is insubstantial.7 Conversely, James W. Anderson has marshaled evidence from Calvin’s sermons and has argued that he taught an unlimited atonement.8 An important point that will be developed later, but that is worth mentioning now, is that scholars rarely appeal to the Institutes when arguing Calvin’s position. The Institutes seems to offer little help in determining Calvin’s view.

The second kind of evidence adduced by those who claim that Calvin advocates a view on the extent of the atonement is from systematic theology. Scholars point to doctrines taught by Calvin that seem to fit very well with limited or unlimited atonement, respectively. Those espousing unlimited atonement point to ‘universal’ themes in Calvin: his affirmation of the importance of evangelism and clear belief in a universal and free offer of the gospel.9 Those committed to limited atonement cite Calvin’s ‘particular’ themes: his assertion of double predestination and his emphasis on the efficacy of Christ’s saving work.10 The existence of these two themes of particularism and universalism in Calvin’s thought is undeniable. But the interpretation of the significance of them is hotly debated. Some have concluded that these two strains are hopelessly in conflict, so that ‘the reformer left to his successors a theology that was . . . inherently unstable.’11 This view is to be rejected because it fails to do justice to Calvin as a clear and careful thinker. It fails to see the compatibility between particularism and the universal preaching of the gospel. Instead, I prefer to view the two strains in Calvin as a reflection of the Bible’s own antinomy between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.12 I also regard the appeal to these systematic themes as insufficient to decide the question of Calvin’s view on limited/unlimited atonement. The very fact that scholars have to appeal to systematic theology hints at a paucity of actual statements in Calvin on the issue of the extent of the atonement and should serve to make us examine whether or not Calvin answers the questions that we ask.

Where, then, do I stand? I have resisted the temptation to read my view into Calvin. I hold to a position of limited atonement, but continue to think that the evidence is too ambiguous to allow a definitive answer to the question of what Calvin thinks on the matter. At the same time I acknowledge the universalist and particularist strains in Calvin’s thought mentioned in the previous two paragraphs. I understand how scholars can claim Calvin as an advocate of either limited or unlimited atonement by emphasizing the particularist or universalist strain, respectively. Nonetheless, I think that it is a mistake to do so. I therefore belong to the third camp above: I confess uncertainty concerning Calvin’s position on the extent of the atonement.

Nevertheless, my views have changed somewhat since I wrote Calvin’s Doctrine o/the Atonement in 1983.13 Perhaps the most important recent contribution concerning Calvin’s view on the extent of the atonement is Jonathan H. Rainbow’s dissertation, ‘Redemptor Ecclesiae, Redemptor Mundi: An Historical and Theological Study of 10hn Calvin’s Doctrine of the Extent of Redemption.’14 Rainbow argues that Calvin agrees with his historical antecedents Augustine, Gottshalk, and his contemporary Bucer in advocating limited atonement. According to Rainbow, Calvin taught that Christ, by making a definite atonement, was redeemer of the church. In gospel proclamation and pastoral work, however, Calvin presents Christ as redeemer of the world, meaning all kinds of people, not each and every person. Rainbow’s scholarship is impressive. He shows that Calvin stands in a particularist tradition stretching from Augustine to Bucer, with whom Calvin served in Strasbourg from 1538-1541. Rainbow also argues convincingly that limited atonement harmonizes well with Calvin’s doctrine of salvation.

Nevertheless, I am not persuaded that it is proper to claim Calvin as an advocate of particular redemption. Rainbow’s argument can be turned against him at points. For example, if Bucer did teach limited atonement in his refutations of Anabaptist teaching, as Rainbow demonstrates, and if Calvin was influenced by this, then why does Calvin not give the doctrine a more prominent place in his teaching? Above all, why does Calvin not even mention the extent of the atonement when he summarizes his views on the person and work of the mediator in the Institutes? Rainbow’s answers to this last question fall short of the mark.15

Although I reject his major thesis, that Calvin clearly taught limited atonement, Rainbow’s work has changed my thinking. I can no longer maintain, as I did in 1983, that the extent of the atonement was not an issue until after Calvin. Rainbow convinces me that Gottshalk and Bucer (in debates with Anabaptists) taught limited atonement before Calvin.16 I must modify my judgment, therefore, and argue that limited/unlimited atonement was not a debated issue within reformed circles until the time of Calvin’s successor, Beza. I thus agree with Robert Letham that the extent of the atonement ‘only became a major issue in the next generation’17 The debate over this matter waited until Moses Amyrald and John Cameron began promoting unlimited atonement and thereby precipitated responses from the defenders of reformed orthodoxy. Hence the question of Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement is somewhat anachronistic.

An important methodological consideration, too often overlooked, should be taken into account. Advocates of the three viewpoints generally agree that there is too little evidence in the Institutes to reach a conclusion on the extent of the atonement. The lack of evidence in the Institutes should make us cautious when using the commentaries and sermons to determine whether Calvin teaches limited or unlimited atonement. In his preface to the reader in the 1559 Institutes, Calvin gives his own methodological statement that one should interpret his commentaries doctrinally on the basis of the Institutes.18 The conclusion, therefore, must be that it is uncertain what position Calvin would have taken if he were living at the time of the debates over the extent of the atonement.

One more point needs to be made. I am persuaded that it is fair to say that limited atonement fits better with the system of Calvin’ s thought than does unlimited atonement. Paul Helm, Roger Nicole, and above all, Jonathan Rainbow demonstrate that the features of Calvin’s thought cohere very well with the position of particular atonement.19 I would go so far as to conclude that limited atonement, as framed by Calvin’s successors, is a valid theological extension of his own theology. But I still maintain that it is unwise to ask what is Calvin’s view on the extent of the atonement, because it was a question that he did not address. Robert A. Peterson, Calvin and the Atonement ([Fearn, Scotland]: Mentor, 1999), 115-120. [Some minor reformatting; italics original; footnote values and content original; and underlining mine.]

[Notes: 1) There are essentially three lines of thought enlisted to argue that Calvin held to limited satisfaction. One of them is that predestination, election, and reprobation, either entail limited satisfaction, or at least, these doctrines entail a precommitment to limited satisfaction, if not outright an affirmation of it. Then the argument assumes that given Calvin held to predestination, election, and reprobation, he was, therefore, committed to limited satisfaction, even if he did not explicitly commit himself to it. The problem is, there were many contemporaries of Calvin, and preceding theologians, who also held to predestination, election, and, reprobation, but yet also held to unlimited satisfaction. The sort of “entailment” argument enlisted by Nicole, Rainbow, Gerstner, and others, simply begs the question. Indeed, it is simply false.

2) Letham attempts to justify the counter that those scholars who read limited satisfaction in Calvin are not reading their own theological reflection back into Calvin. However, this counter is muted by the fact that Nicole and others do, indeed, read a particular form of vicarious satisfaction back into Calvin, as well as certain post-Calvin arguments for limited vicarious satisfaction (see my review of Nicole’s arguments in my A Brief History of Deviant Calvinism. Secondly, Peterson’s own reading of antinomy is itself anachronistic. Calvin, himself, never hints at such an idea.

3) It would be very unwise to accept Rainbow’s conclusions regarding Augustine, and others, on the question of the extent of the satisfaction and redemption. Give Rainbow’s incorrect reading of Ausgustine, Prosper, Thomas, et al, any induction or deduction based on Rainbow’s historical conclusions should be deemed suspect.

4) Lastly, Peterson’s claim that limited satisfaction best fits Calvin’s theology should be rejected or questioned on a number of grounds. Notwithstanding his own denial of reading paradigm(s) back into Calvin, Peterson is, in fact, doing exactly that. He reads back into Calvin a version of vicarious satisfaction which contains key theological contours which arose post-Calvin. Further, Calvin’s particularistic language well fits the then contemporary theological paradigm of election and reprobation, existing alongside unlimited satisfaction. For example, we find exactly this sort of universalist-particularist co-existence in Luther, Bullinger, Musculus, et al). There is no need to sublimate, as most do, Calvin’s universalist theology and language, under Calvin’s elective particularism or his references to the efficacy of Christ’s satisfaction.]


1R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 1979, 1997), pp. 13-14 (italics in original).

2Jonathan Rainbow, ‘Redemptor Ecclesiae, Redemptor Mundi: An Historical and Theological Study of John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Extent of Redemption’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1986), p. 159.

3Paul Van Buren, Christ in Our Place, p. 50. Extensive work was done by James W. Anderson, ‘The Grace of God and the Non-elect in Calvin’s Commentaries and Sermons’ (Th.D. dissertation, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1976). He concludes in favor of unlimited atonement in Calvin largely on the basis of his sermons.

4So A. A. Hodge, The Atonement (1867; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), pp. 388-91, and W. Robert Godfrey, ‘Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618’, Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1975): 137-38.

5So Robert W. A. Letham, ‘Saving Faith and Assurance in Reformed Theology: Zwingli to the Synod of Dort’, 2 vols, (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 1979), 1: 125-26.

6Roger Nicole, ‘John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement,’ Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 208. For a similar word of caution see Hans Boersma, ‘Calvin and the Extent of the Atonement’, Evangelical Quarterly 64:4 (1992): 334 and 334 n. 4.

7Calvin’s commentary on I John 2:2. For a denial that Calvin here taught limited atonement, see Anderson, ‘The Grace of God,’ p. 111.

8Anderson, ‘The Grace of God’, pp. 112f., 117,127,129-32, 134f., 137 and 141.

9See Calvin’s commentaries on Matt. 20:28, Rom. 5: 18, and Gal. 5:12.

1010. See Institutes III. xxi, II. xvii. 4, and Calvin’s commentaries on Isa. 53: 11 and Heb. 8:4.

11G. M. Thomas, The Extent of the Atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus (1536-1675) (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 1997), p. 34.

12For a discussion of these themes in Scripture, especially the Gospel of John, see D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981, 1994).

13Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1983.

14See note 2 for a full citation.

15Rainbow, ‘Redemptor Ecclesiae, Redemptor Mundi’, pp. 364-71.

16Ibid., pp. 67-84, 128-157.

17Letham, ‘Saving Faith and Assurance in Reformed Theology’, 1.125.

18Institutes, ‘John Calvin to the Reader’ (pp. 4-5 of the McNeill edition).

19Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982); Nicole, ‘John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement’, pp. 220-25; Rainbow, ‘Redemptor Ecclesiae, Redemptor Mundi’, pp. 159-311.

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